View of Deseronto, Ont. From the Air (Sergeant C.P. Devos photograph 2009.20 (68)

View of Deseronto, Ont. From the Air (Sergeant C.P. Devos photograph 2009.20 (68)

On this day in 1918 Deseronto played a small role in a historic moment: the first delivery of mail by air in Canada. The full story of Captain Brian Peck and Corporal C. W. Mathers’ flight is described in Bill Hunt’s 2009 book Dancing in the Sky. Peck and Mathers’ fundamental plan was to avoid Ontario’s Prohibition restrictions by flying to Montreal to pick up a case of whiskey so that they could celebrate a colleague’s wedding. They got permission by arranging to fly over Montreal in an aerobatic display and leaflet drop to encourage recruitment into the Royal Air Force. The Aerial League of the British Empire got involved with the plan: they were keen to demonstrate the use of aircraft to deliver mail and Peck’s trip gave them the opportunity they had been looking for.

Peck and Mathers took off from Leaside in Toronto on June 20th. They refuelled in Deseronto and landed in Montreal at the Bois Franc polo field (Montreal did not have an airfield at the time). Heavy rain prevented the aerobatic display on the 22nd June and they were unable to fly out on the 23rd because of poor visibility. On Monday the 24th, the two men, their crate of Old Mull whiskey, and a sack of 120 letters finally took off. The extra weight of the whiskey prevented them from flying more than 40 feet above the ground and they had to land at Camp Barriefield in Kingston, short of fuel. There was no aviation fuel in Kingston, so regular gasoline was used to refuel the Curtiss JN-4 aircraft. They were then able to fly the short distance to Deseronto, where the tank was drained and refilled with the correct fuel at one of the RAF camps here.

Beck and Mathers were then able to fly back to Leaside. Peck drove the mail by car to the Toronto post office, while Mathers delivered the whiskey. A plaque at  Leaside commemorates the occasion (without any mention of the whiskey!).

Canada's first air mail plaque

Image from


Readers of this blog will be very familiar with the exploits of the pilots who trained at Deseronto in the First World War, but may be less aware of the pilot training that took place in the area during the Second. The former Camp Mohawk site on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory became part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, as No. 1 Instrument Flying School, during World War II.

A recent visitor to the Community Archives in Belleville brought in some materials which relate to Flight Officer George McCallum Sheppard’s time at the School. Sheppard was from Gananoque, and was stationed in Tyendinaga from 1940 to 1945 as part of ‘B’ Flight as a flight instructor.

This photograph is of an unofficial coat of arms designed by a member of the school, which lists the people who worked there:  J. A. ‘Jack’ Coulter, J. E. ‘Johnnie’ Millard, R. W. ‘Ralph’ Snider, D. K. ‘Mac’ McColl, L. G. ‘Lloyd’ Polden, W. E. ‘Mac’ McKinney, J. H. ‘Joe’ Wiley, R. A. ‘Bob’ Harris, D. H. ‘Sammy’ Wood-Samman, J. H. ‘Jimmy’ Clarke, W. F. ‘Bill’ Veitch, W. H. ‘Bill’ Durnin AFC, P. M. ‘Pete’ Bickett, E. E. ‘Hake’ Hacon, A. A. ‘Art’ Egan, G. J. ‘Fin’ Finlay, G. M. ‘Shep’ Sheppard, W. J. ‘Bill’ Morrison.

Harold Mills, the donor of these materials is interested in knowing whether anyone can identify the location of the house in the image below. It was the scene of a crash that took place on August 3rd, 1943. Flight Officer Sheppard’s Airspeed Oxford lost power to its port engine and clipped two trees before crashing just short of this farmhouse. Mr Mills would love to know where the house was. Please comment if you can help.

It’s not every day that a small municipal archives is featured alongside a national institution, but today is one of those days. We are delighted to be able to share the news that Deseronto Archives is now part of the Flickr Commons, a place for institutions to share their photographic collections and a place where people can add tags and comments to the photographs to help describe and interpret them.

Flickr Commons participating instutions

Some of the institutions participating in Flickr Commons

We’re already seeing new comments and tags being added to the Flickr photographs, such as this one of Lieutenant Ned E. Ballough, ‘the wing-walker’ performing a daring stunt during the First World War:

Man standing behind the cockpit of a Curtiss JN-4 training aircraft

Ned Ballough, ‘wing-walking’ 2012.10(05)

And the usage statistics on the account have also taken a dizzying skyward trajectory in the 16 hours since we officially joined the Commons!

Usage statistics from Flickr

A month ago, we received a new accession of photographs  from Dave Stapley, whose family once owned a farm on the Boundary Road, at the eastern side of Deseronto. The farm was close to the World War One pilot training site, Camp Rathbun, and many of the 33 photos depict men, buildings, and aircraft of the camp.

As usual, there are pictures of crashes on the ground (look closely at the trees on this one in relation to the aircraft):

Crashed aircraft

Crashes into hangar buildings at the camp:

Aircraft crashed into hangar door

And into water (you can see the Foresters’ Island Orphanage in the background of this shot):

There are also several photographs of (mainly) unidentified individuals, including this lovely shot of a man crossing the finishing line of a race:

Man crossing finishing line

The skull-and-crossbones motif seen on the aircraft and on the tops of the runners here is a symbol used by the men of 90 C.T.S. (Canadian Training Squadron), which was based at Camp Rathbun. We know nothing about the creator of these photographs, but we can  surmise that he was a member of 90 C.T.S. who left his photographs behind him after he left the area.

The arrival of the Royal Flying Corps in Deseronto in 1917 provided a new angle of perspective on the town: for the first time, photographs began to be taken from the air. Aerial photographs became increasingly important to the campaign on the Western Front in Europe as the First World War progressed and learning how to take good photographs from the air would have been a vital skill for the trainee pilots based in Camp Mohawk and Camp Rathbun.*

The  album of World War One photographs mentioned in our previous post includes this shot of the town from a pilot-training aircraft over the Bay of Quinte, looking north over Deseronto.

At the top left of the photograph is Rathbun Park and the Town Hall (at that time it was the Bank of Montreal), with Centre Street and the Post Office also visible. Between the waterfront and Main Street several railway cars can be seen, running along tracks where Water Street is today. The buildings next to the lake shore are the Rathbun Company’s cedar mill (on the right), which manufactured cedar railway ties, fence posts and shingles and the car works (on the left). The smoke from the cedar mill’s chimney shows that this was still in operation when the photograph was taken, although generally the Rathbun Company’s industries were winding down at this time, with many of their buildings being taken over for use by the Royal Flying Corps as administrative headquarters and repair shops for aircraft engines.

The picture below, from the same album, shows the interior of a typical engine workshop. Women as well as men were employed in mechanical work in these establishments (and, unusually for the time, at the same rates of pay). The person to the left of centre of this shot is a woman.

In the winter months, the Canadian training camps were relocated to a US Army base at Fort Worth, Texas. Several of the photographs in the album show scenes from the Texas camps, including this photograph of a First World War tank:

We end this post with another aerial view from the album. This one is labelled ‘Fort Worth, Texas’:

*For a timeline demonstrating the increasing significance of aerial photography on the Western Front in the First World War, see this useful blog post by Tim Slater.

“High Diving”: aircraft crashed in the Bay of Quinte

A report from the Napanee Express of November 15th, 1918, four days after the signing of the Armistice.

One result of the signing of the armistice will be the immediate close of the two aviation camps at Deseronto, Camp Mohawk and Camp Rathbun. The commanding officers received instructions Monday morning from Ottawa to make arrangements for the demobilization of the force and the safe storage of machines and equipment. The engines are being taken out of the planes, coated with vaseline and being stored away. This work it is expected will be finished in about two weeks, and then the camp will be abandoned except by caretakers.

It was decided some months ago to make use of the camps at Deseronto all winter, and not send the men south for training the same as had been done last year. It as the intention to install elaborate heating and sanitation systems so that the men would be comfortable during the cold weather. About a month ago, however, the authorities at Ottawa, apparently ordered the discontinuation of the work.

The aviation camps have been popular resorts for sight seers the past two years, and the planes have been a frequent spectacle manoeuvering over our town. The men also have been welcome visitors to the town on many occasions. They were of a superior class, always well conducted and gentlemanly. Their departure will mean a social and sentimental, as well as a real business loss to the merchants of Deseronto.

Bob Almey, 1918, 2011.18 (9)

J. Robert (Bob) Almey (1895-1989) was one of the last group of pilots to be trained at Camp Mohawk, one of the two Royal Flying Corps establishments near Deseronto in the First World War. The photo here shows Bob in his Royal Flying Corps uniform. It was brought into the Archives for scanning a few weeks ago by Bob’s grandson, Rob Woodward.

The war ended before Bob Almey was posted to Europe, which was fortunate for him, given the short life expectancy of pilots on the front line in those days. Bob returned to his studies at the Ontario Agricultural College (now the University of Guelph) and completed his degree in horticulture. In 1921 he was appointed as Manitoba’s first ever provincial horticulturalist.

He went on in 1928 to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway as their Chief Horticulturalist. In this role, Bob was responsible for landscaping the surroundings of 2,000 railway stations across the West of Canada, giving new immigrants and visitors a favourable first impression of the region. By the 1940s, 11,000 packets of seeds were being distributed to stations each year, while CPR greenhouses across the Prairies and British Columbia grew 600,000 plants a year, of up to 125 varieties.

Gladiolus mortonius from Sericea on Flickr

Bob Almey knew each station so well that he could “recite from memory their layouts, the variety of flowers they grew and the amounts needed”. He retired in 1960 but continued to be active in the Manitoba horticultural community (being particularly famous for his gladioli) until his death in 1988.

Deseronto resident Johanna Gordanier visited the Archives today, looking for information on her uncle, Jos van Langen. He was a Dutchman who died in a plane crash in Europe in the 1930s. A little rooting around brought up a Dutch site on plane crashes and a page about the accident. The page is in Dutch, but Google’s translation service did a good job of converting the page into English.

Jos van Langan was an editor for the Dutch newspaper De Tijd. He was on his way home to Amsterdam from Milan, on a flight that would cross the Alps before stopping in Frankfurt. The aircraft, a KLM DC-2, ran into bad weather as it entered Switzerland, flying at an altitude of 5000 metres. Rather chillingly, van Langen recorded the last moments of the flight in his journal. You can see the readings of the altimeter, as the plane descended:


Jos van Langen's notebook


The pilot attempted a crash landing, but the plane landed awkwardly and the main fuselage was completely destroyed, killing all on board.

The notebook itself is now in the archive of the Press Museum in Amsterdam.

Another passenger killed on this flight was the English artist Arthur Watts. Examples of posters he produced for the London Underground can be seen at the London Transport Museum.

One of Watt’s illustrations featured a plane crash:


Flown the Atlantic have ye? Then supposin' you catch my cows and tell them about it!


This image (recovered from the Internet Archive) was originally on a website maintained by members of Arthur Watts’s family.